Energy giants and short term lets lobbyists attended 'shadowy' Scottish Labour business event

Energy giants and short term lets lobbyists attended ‘shadowy’ Labour business event

Energy giants, a lobbying group for the holiday lets sector, and a firm which uses AI to track migrants crossing the Channel were among private bodies at a “shadowy” event at Scottish Labour’s conference which journalists were banned from.

Scottish Labour faced criticism over the transparency of its relationship with big business after it reportedly barred the press from a ‘business forum’ at its conference in Glasgow last month and refused to release a list of organisations who paid to attend.

But Holyrood lobbying filings and social media posts have revealed some attendees.

They included representatives of energy firms Centrica and RWE, which have seen their profits surge on the back of the recent energy crisis. Trade bodies representing controversial firms like Airbnb, Fujitsu and Serco were also present. 

As was tech firm Sirius Insight, which has provided the Home Office with cameras fitted with AI systems reportedly used to monitor the UK’s coast for migrant boats.

Critics – including from within the party – claimed our findings showed Scottish Labour is “selling access to those who are profiting from a broken status quo”. They questioned why the party was “afraid” of “journalists knowing what they are doing”. 

One transparency campaigner argued Labour is the “government in waiting” in the UK, so there is a “legitimate public interest” in knowing what businesses it is meeting and “what those businesses are lobbying for”.

A Scottish Labour spokesperson stressed the party meets with “stakeholders from all backgrounds” including businesses, charities and trade unions.

The business forum was hosted at Glasgow’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, close to the main conference at the Scottish Events Campus. But the forum was “separately ticketed” from the rest of the conference and cost £550 to attend for the day.

The event included breakfast, a series of panel discussions and roundtables, and an evening reception which offered the opportunity for “informal networking”.

Party big hitters in attendance included Scottish leader Anas Sarwar and deputy leader Jackie Baillie, as well as shadow Westminster business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds.

Organisations attending the event were promised “plenty of opportunity” to speak with politicians, prospective candidates and “senior business advisors” on policy issues including energy, hospitality, and tourism.

Centrica’s chief executive, Chris O’Shea, took part in a panel discussion at the event themed around net zero and the just transition. Centrica’s Scottish subsidiary, Scottish Gas, was advertising at the event according to pictures shared on social media.  

On the panel, O’Shea “emphasised the importance of consistency and certainty in the fiscal and policy landscape to support investment” in the energy sector, according to a filing on the lobbying register.

On 16 February, the same day the business forum was held, hundreds of business leaders in the north east wrote to UK party leader Sir Keir Starmer urging him to abandon his proposal to increase a windfall tax on oil and gas firms.

Centrica owns stakes in oil and gas licences in the North Sea through its subsidiary, Spirit Energy.

The chief executive of the trade body Scottish Renewables, Claire Mack, joined Centrica on the net zero panel. Scottish Renewables describes itself as the “voice of Scotland’s renewable energy industry”, but also counts oil majors such as Equinor and Shell among its members.

German firm RWE, another major player in the UK’s renewable industry, was also at the forum according to a post on LinkedIn. 

RWE owns numerous wind farms and hydropower sites in Scotland but is a polluter in mainland Europe, where it owns coal mines and power stations. RWE was the target of protests by campaigners including Greta Thunberg last year over its plans to demolish a German village to make room for more coal mining.

It also owns the Markinch biomass plant in Fife, which was the fourth biggest carbon dioxide polluter of any industrial site in Scotland last year. RWE argues that because it burns waste wood which would otherwise decompose, the energy produced at Markinch is carbon neutral.

According to a social media post, the chief executive of Scottish Financial Enterprise (SFE) took part in a panel discussion about “the importance of Scotland’s financial services sector”. 

SFE represents Scotland’s financial services sector and its members include banks, wealth managers and insurance firms. UK Labour‘s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Darren Jones MP, and Scottish Labour’s spokesperson on the economy, Daniel Johnson, were also on that panel.

Glasgow MSP, Pam Duncan Glancy, spoke with the Business Services Association (BSA) during a “breakout roundtable meeting” at the forum. 

The BSA is the industry association for outsourcing companies and counts controversial public sector service providers including Serco, G4S and Fujitsu among its membership

Some UK Government services  outsourced to the private sector have  failed to meet quality standards and the industry has faced a series of scandals in recent years.

The UK Short Term Accommodation Association, which represents companies like Airbnb, and Vrbo, was represented by its chief executive. 

The holiday lets market has been accused of exacerbating the housing crisis across the UK by squeezing the amount of housing available for residents in areas with a lot of tourism.

Meanwhile Sirius Insight said it was “very impressed” with Labour’s “interest and engagement” at the business forum with sectors including AI and defence.

Scottish Greens MSP, Mark Ruskell, argued that “shadowy lobbyists” were not “splashing their cash on gladhanding Scottish Labour out of the goodness of their hearts”. 

“They are doing it because they want to buy access, influence and favours,” Ruskell told The Ferret.

“Labour is trying to present itself as a government in-waiting, but it is selling access to those who are profiting from a broken status quo and polluting our planet. 

“It raises important questions about transparency. Why are Scottish Labour so afraid of publishing their guest list, and why are they so afraid of journalists knowing what they are doing?”

Tom Brake, a former Liberal Democrat MP and director of transparency campaign group, Unlock Democracy, pointed out that “in just six months or so, Labour ministers could be responsible for energy and industrial policy”. 

He added: “That is why there is a legitimate public interest in knowing which businesses Labour are meeting now and what those businesses are lobbying for. Labour has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by adopting a policy of transparency.”

A spokesperson for Campaign for Socialism, a left-wing pressure group within Scottish Labour, said “secretive corporate lobbying” of the party came as “no surprise”. 

They said: “Anas Sarwar is always talking about cleaning up politics, which means a tougher line on corporate lobbying. The clue is in the name – the Labour Party. As thousands of people are shivering or starving in homes across Scotland, our party’s focus should be on them and at the picket lines, not the boardrooms.”

A Scottish Labour spokesperson said: “The Scottish Labour Party regularly meets with stakeholders from all backgrounds in a range of settings, including businesses, charities and trade unions.

“This year Scottish Labour held our largest conference in years. This was an opportunity for people from across the party, public life and the business community to discuss our plans to deliver the change Scotland needs.”

All the attendees of the business forum named in this story were asked to comment. 

Sirius Insight said that “alongside many other businesses” it “attended the event to hear Labour’s perspective on a wide range of policy issues”. RWE said its attendance at the event was “standard public affairs activity” and noted that it registered its “engagement with Scottish politicians on the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register”.

The official partner of the business forum was lobbying outfit Arden Strategies which is headed by former Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy. Blair McDougall, who ran the No campaign in the 2014 independence referendum is a senior strategist at Arden.

Arden had its own lounge at the UK Labour conference in Liverpool in October last year, which Murphy said was hosting “a multitude of events” including “private dinners with business leaders”.

A ‘business day’ event at the party’s UK conference sold out and had to open a waiting list. Analysts claim this was a sign businesses are competing to get the ear of the party, which has a big lead over the Tories in general election polling and is expected to form the next government. 

According to its website, Arden helps businesses to ‘demystify’ Labour’s policy-making process. Its dedicated ‘Labour Directorate’ also provides “comprehensive mapping” of “political stakeholders that share your company’s interests”.

Arden – which boasts “unrivalled insights into Labour policies, personalities and priorities” – saw its assets double last year.

In his New Year’s speech at the start of the year, Starmer pledged to “clean up politics”, which meant “no more revolving doors between government and the companies they regulate”, and a “total crackdown on cronyism”.

Main image: Scottish Parliament

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